The Prana of Cooked Foods, Pt. 1: Perspectives on Cooking
The Prana of Cooked Foods:
An Ayurvedic Perspective on Prana, Cooking, and Raw Foods
There is now a popular movement that advocates the consumption of food in its raw or uncooked state, for many of the same reasons I have outlined in the "Diet" section of this website. The assertion being made by many raw foodists is that only raw food has prana, while cooking deranges and destroys the prana in food. A common criticism made by raw foodists is that cooked food is "dead food", that the prana (as well as enzymes and nutrients) are destroyed by the heat-process, rendering the food devoid of the life-principle.
On the surface, it seems plausible that cooking food devitalizes it. After all, we are taking something from nature and then processing it with heat before consuming it. However, the modern practice of "cooking" really does devitalize and denature food, and is not really cooking as Ayurveda defines it. In respect to modern cooking practices, Ayurveda agrees that what most people call cooking is destroying the prana in food. There is also the fact that the modern processing of food has (rightly) led to disillusionment with the processing of food altogether, giving people the impression that any and all human processing of natural food is inherently negative. Yet there is a middle ground, so let's examine a deeper understanding of cooking and prana.
First, what exactly is modern cooking? It is typically high-heat cooking, microwaving of food, deep frying food, etc. Extreme temperatures allow food to cook faster in these "instant" times, but it undoubtedly devitalizes food. When anyone eats food like this, it makes them feel tired rather than energized. It is also important to note that most modern cooking is done with the use of excess amounts of poor quality salt, poor quality vegetable oils, and without the use of any spices to help digest the food. If food cooked in this way is the only alternative to fresh raw food, then the raw food is certainly the superior choice.
If we consider the Ayurvedic understanding of "agni" (or "fire"), then it is easier to understand why digestion is a much more significant physiological process that has nothing to do with the enzyme content of food. The digestive fire of the stomach is how the food is broken down and transformed. If this flame is low, food will not be digested. One should not underestimate the heat of the stomach--it is full of hydrochloric acid that is meant to break down the food and is highly acidic. Even if we temporarily entertain the enzyme theory, by the time the enzyme-rich food reaches the stomach it is certainly cooked! As Dr. Vasant Lad has said, sooner or later everything gets cooked, whether you do it on the stove or not. Digestion is cooking.
In contrast to modern cooking practices, Ayurveda has a long-practiced and sophisticated approach to cooking foods. When we cook food, we are infusing it with agni (or fire). This is true at the physical level because heat is being introduced to the food. But it is also true at an energetic level, because agni is an aspect of prana. Thus, the cooking of food in Ayurveda is viewed as a vitalizing process, because agni-predominant prana is being infused in the food. This is not to imply that food in its raw state does not have prana and that one must cook food to vitalize it.
Raw food has lots of prana, but it is marut and soma-predominant prana. In other words, raw food has more of the energy of space, air, and water elements. As such, its energy tends to be cold, and it draws upon more of our digestive fire to break it down. When we cook, we are putting the energy of agni into the food, so that the prana in the raw food is able to be metabolized and utilized by the body. Highly nutritious food sounds good as an idea, but it means nothing if it is not fully digested and absorbed. Without proper digestion, even the most nutritious food becomes poison, stagnating and fermenting in the gut. Of course, some raw food has more agni than other raw foods. Many fruits (especially papaya and pineapple) have a good balance of agni and soma and it is quite natural to consume fruits raw. Vegetables, such as zucchini for example, require the introduction of agni before we can make use of its somagenic qualities.
In summary, here are some basic Ayurvedic tips for high prana cooking:
- Cook with fresh, local, organic food as much as possible.
- Cook in a gentle way that respects the prana in food and preserves it. At the physical level, this means slow-cooking, and energetically it means to cook with love and good intention
- Cook with high quality heat-stable oils such as ghee or coconut oil. Ghee not only has innumerable benefits in and of itself, but when food is cooked with ghee, the lipid-soluble nutrients are carried by the ghee across the lipid membranes of the cells, providing the body with the deepest possible nourishment. Note that coconut oil is best suited for high Pitta types in the summer time and not otherwise.
- Cook with spices. The use of spices is not merely to impart flavor to food, but to balance the qualities and energetics of the food. Spices help balance the meal by providing all six tastes in an appropriate portion. Spices also have a warming effect or cooling effect. For example, in the summer time, I may use more fennel and coriander to bring a greater cooling effect on the food. But in the winter time, I will use more ginger and perhaps black pepper, and if it is cold outside, some green chili also. Furthermore, when food is cooked gently with spices, the spices "pre-digest" the food, making the food even easier to assimilate. When food is consumed in this way it does not draw upon much of the body's prana--rather it allows that prana to be preserved and then supplies more. This is the energizing effect that one should feel from food.
A great way to directly experience high prana cooking is to gently saute dark leafy greens in ghee and spices until the greens turn dark green. Greens have a lot of prana and are popular to consume raw. But if cooked consciously, one will notice that a plate of freshly cooked greens is incredibly energizing and opens the channels of the body.
For those interested in combining Ayurvedic principles with a raw food diet, I highly recommend reading the following article from my colleague, Dr. Mark Vinick: Raw Food Diet: An Ayurvedic Perspective.